Dealing with cedar fever season in East Texas

by Staff reports

Cedar fever season is upon us once again, complete with runny noses, itchy eyes and general misery. But what exactly is cedar fever, and why is it so insufferable this time of year?

For starters, cedar fever isn’t a flu or a virus – it is an allergic reaction to the pollen released by mountain cedar trees. In Texas, the predominant species of mountain cedar is the Ashe juniper.

"Thankfully, the trees known for producing severe 'cedar fever' right now, that are triggering cedar allergies so heavily currently (Juniperus ashei, mountain cedar/Ashe's juniper) do not grow natively here. But in their native range, they bloom so copiously that it blows in on the wind for us," explained Cherokee County AgriLife Extension Horticulturist Kim Benton of Rusk.

Jonathan Motsinger, Texas A&M Forest Service Central Texas Operations Department Head, notes that "cedar fever is the worst west of I-35, where you have primarily juniper mixed in with oaks and some other species. And because all of those junipers are producing pollen at the same time, you’re going to get a higher concentration of pollen in the air.”

The sheer quantity and density of Ashe junipers in central Texas are the primary contributors to cedar fever, according to Karl Flocke, a woodland ecologist for Texas A&M Forest Service.

The pollen from Ashe junipers isn’t particularly allergenic or harmful, he said, it’s just that it is so concentrated that, even if you aren’t generally susceptible to allergies, it could still affect you.

Since the pollen is spread by the wind, cedar fever can affect individuals far removed from areas with a high concentration of juniper trees. And the source isn’t limited to Ashe junipers: In more eastern parts of the state, there are also eastern red cedars that pollinate around the same time and can induce a similar response from people’s auto-immune systems.

These trees typically begin producing pollen in mid-December, often triggered by colder weather or the passage of a Texas cold front. Pollen production reaches its peak in mid-January, before slowly tapering off toward the beginning of March, just in time for oak pollen and other spring allergens to start up.

“Immediately before and after a cold front it gets very dry and windy and the pressure changes very rapidly,” Flocke said. “This triggers the opening of pollen cones and the release of the pollen grains. When you see the pollen billowing off a tree that has just ‘popped,’ or opened its cones, it looks very similar to smoke coming from a wildfire.”

It’s not uncommon for people experiencing cedar fever to mistake their symptoms as a cold or the seasonal flu, especially given the variety of symptoms triggered by cedar fever. These include fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, partial loss of smell and – believe it or not – some people actually do run a slight fever. However, if your fever is higher than 101.5°F, then pollen likely isn’t the cause.

There are a few symptoms of cedar fever that are not linked to coronavirus or the flu though, like itchy, watery eyes, blocked nasal passages and sneezing. But there is one symptom that, according to Flocke, should steer you clear. “Typically, mucus from allergies is clear and runny while other infections lead to thicker colored mucus,” Flocke said.

To alleviate symptoms, "you can treat cedar fever by taking allergy medications and antihistamines, but you first should consult with your physician or health care professional before taking new medications," Benton said. "You can also try and anticipate the pollen by tuning in to your local news station, many of which will give you the pollen count and can predict when it’s going to be a particular pollen-heavy day. On those days, it’s smart to keep windows and doors closed, to limit the amount of time you spend outdoors and to change air conditioning filters in your car and in your home."

Benton reminded those suffering with severe cedar allergy to check their property for eastern red cedar, "as it is very common here."